POP GOES THE 1970’s -Part 2- ROSS RYAN

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I Am Pegasus (R Ryan) – Ross Ryan 1973

American-born Ross Ryan (1950) emigrated with his family from Kansas (USA) to Western Australia in 1959, and took up residence on a 3,000-acre sheep property at Manypeaks near Albany in the south-west corner of the state. Ross gigged locally with several bands including The Sett and Saffron, and in 1969 he relocated to Perth and performed at Gramps Wine Bar, pubs and on univesity campuses, where he was compared to Cat Stevens, even though his inspirations were more closely aligned with Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, and Joni Mitchell.

After completing an electronics course, he took a job as an audio operator at TVW 9, and in 1972 got his big break when he picked up the support act gig on Roy Orbison’s 1972 tour of Aust. At the end of that tour he relocated to Sydney and secured a recording contract with EMI via Peter Dawkins (above centre), who would produce his future records. He would emerge in the 1970’s as one of Australia’s foremost singer/songwriters along with such contemporaries as Kevin Johnson, Mike McClellan, Richard Clapton and Glenn Cardier. In 1973 he released his second album A Poem You Can Keep which charted well at #22, and went on to record his signature hits later in the same year. The haunting and poetic I Am Pegsasus was the product of Ryan merging two previously separate compositions, one about a messy love affair with a female flight attendant, and another about the fact that he discovered his name Ross, is a German/Hebrew metonymic name for a horse breeder/ keeper, literally a horse.

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In interview with Debbie Kruger for her book They Wrote the Songs (2002) Ryan explained how the song evolved, and what the main influences were “One of the original songs was about the fact that I had just discovered that Ross meant horse; I’d looked it up in a baby-naming book, and I thought that was really funny, so I had the line ‘My name means horse.” At the same he was having a really disastrous attempt at a relationship with an air hostess, which didn’t work out, so he was writing a song about that as well, and ‘I am flying but let me down’ indicated that he wanted out of the relationship. In reality it was in fact the girl who was more interested in getting out of the relationship than he was, as she was already attached. The guy she was going out with was named Jeffrey, who became the Jeffrey in the song, ‘I am Michael, I am Jeffrey and John.’ Ryan further explained “ Coincidentally Michael was the boyfriend of my high school (Albany Senior High School) sweetheart, Christine, and I think I became a songwriter because of my unrequited love for her.”

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The songwriting process took around two months, the two songs didn’t seem to have a separate existence, and once the flying horse/Pegasus concept gelled, Ryan instinctively knew that within this framework he could craft a tender love song  “ And I don’t want to leave you/Unless you want me gone/I am fly-ying, but let me down/Oh I don’t need the thi-ings/That once kept me around/It’s not too late/To know who I am/I am Pegasus, my name mea-eans horse/And I can fly-y with you/But I’ve changed my course.” Below L-R Folksingers of the era formed loosely-knit performance ensembles, The Lemmings were one L-R – Mark Holden, Ross Ryan, Paul Sullivan and Mike Meade; Mark and Ross duetting Everly Brothers songs, then-PM Gough Whitlam presenting Ross with gold records for I Am Pegasus and the album My Name Means Horse.

Ryan has subsequently admitted that he had discovered that John Lennon used a rhyming phrasebook to conjure lyrics for Beatles songs, so he acquired one from England and promptly found words that rhymed with Pegasus like Demetrios and Sagittarius, the latter being the name of the half man, half horse of Greek mythology.

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Although the provenance of the song is linked to certain aspects of Ryan’s life at the time, he also wanted to write a song that would capture people’s imagination in the way that several songs released in 1972 had, such as Don McLean’s American Pie, America’s Horse With No Name, and Neil Young’s Heart of Gold, which had all been significant folk-rock hits, and these were influential in the composition of I Am Pegasus.

Horses were a popular theme during the 70’s, not only America’s Horse With No Name, but also Wildfire by Michael Murphy, Red-Headed Stranger by Willie Nelson, and a decade later Ricki Lee Jones would release Horses. and Darryl Braithwate would cover it and create an iconic local anthem.

The lyrical narrative of the song was ostensibly word play and rhyming couplets, neither Ryan nor his producer Peter Dawkins thought it would be a hit, Ryan described it as “a song writing exercise, a bit of a throwaway”. But musically it was engaging, in a folk-rock CSNY kind of way, with acoustic guitar, banjo, balalaika, and percussion merging with orchestral strings and brass. It was also lyrically teasing and obscure enough to invite interpretation, to perhaps uncover hidden meanings in its nooks and crannies. The word “horse” is sometimes a colloquialism for heroin and this gave rise to a theory that the song contained heavily-coded drug references, not uncommon in songs at the time, others read religious meanings into the lyrics, even suggesting that Ross Ryan was predicting the second coming of Christ!

The “throwaway” became a breakthrough #2 national hit for Ryan in November ’73, he also had success with the albums My Name Means Horse (#3 in ’74) and After the Applause (#35 in ‘75) and he continued to assemble a credible body of work over the next 20 years but never rose to these heights again.

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While the song has never been covered, as it is quite specific to people named Ross, it is etched in the minds of many Australians and has appeared on various compilation albums. For some time Ryan used to change the lyrics at live performances and deflate the song, but he realized that fans were insulted by this, “They were there to hear it, and I should have been flattered that they liked it in the first place.”

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